By Daniel Ford
I remember darkness.
Never total. Never complete. Just enough to provide nightmares. Or allow your cousin to sleep until noon.
I was, and remain, an early riser. There’s nothing I loved more than sleeping over my aunt and uncle’s house, but, come on, a guy could go hungry waiting for his teenage cousin to snap out of her heavy slumber. (Of course, I’m failing to acknowledge that I talked her ear off until well into the early morning hours.)
While my eyes opened the moment white-hot sunlight forced itself through the thin blinds, I couldn’t just leap out of my sleeping bag and rush out into the wide-awake-for-hours world. Leave the room too early and you’d be forced (yes, in my young mind, I was painfully forced) to brush your teeth and be presentable enough to go to church with my aunt and uncle. It’s much easier to feign sleep rather than faith.
The church wasn’t the same one that my parents sparsely attended, so not only was I bored out of my mind hearing about how Jesus saved the world (not quick enough to prevent himself from being hammered into a board by the Romans), but they didn’t follow the same routine! I could never tell if the mass was almost done or not, or if I could sneak out an action figure or two without anyone thinking I was asking for immediate damnation. One time, the priest encouraged all the kids to attend a Sunday school session held during mass. My aunt looked at me and I hope my expression conveyed that if I had to endure the teachings of the Catholic Church, there was no way in hell…er…God’s infinite eternity that I was going to fake-make new friends at the same time. I’m a good soldier, but there’s a limit and that was it. She patted me on the shoulder, and said an extra Hail Mary for my introvert soul (I’m assuming).
To avoid all of this, I did what any other heathen pre-teen might do in that situation: I reached for the nearest V.C. Andrews novel on my cousin’s floor (I would have also settled for The Baby-Sitters Club, Danielle Steel, or Goosebumps. I didn’t discriminate). Just by feeling the raised text on the cover, I could tell the book I found was one of Ms. Andrews’ tawdry, incestuous tales. Score!
Alas, I had already read Flowers in the Attic cover-to-cover (a fairly traumatic experience for some readers, never mind one who hadn’t taken a sex ed. class, but I barely flinched at an imprisoned, emaciated brother and sister going at it in a dusty attic). I know I had brought a few Boxcar Children books with me, but those were sitting on the coffee table in the living room—way too early to risk it, church was still a real possibility.
I watched my cousin’s New Kids on the Block alarm clock mark the time. It seemed as bored and restless as I was. My cousin and younger brother remained motionless under a pile of homemade blankets we’d stitched together years ago. They were supposed to make you dream about your favorite crush (Punky Brewster) when combined with my cousin’s quartz crystal and moody incantations.
I heard a screen door squeal and then slam. My heart pounded but I remained motionless. Many Sunday mornings were ruined by jumping the gun and running head long into a car still idling in the garage. One had to hear the vehicle scrap the edge of the steep driveway, the gears of the garage door quiet after screeching across the neighborhood, and wait five whole minutes before even thinking about making a move. I watched the clock’s cartoon-like numbers inch closer to the approved time, unzipping my sleeping bag to prepare for a quick exit.
I made for the kitchen.
The gray stone floor iced my feet. I tiptoed to the counter, unsure if my aunt had gone to the bakery earlier that morning.
I didn’t get too down because I knew a glazed donut bounty was sure to arrive once my aunt was done praying for more religious nephews.
The coffee maker mumbled a few final drops into the nearly empty pot. There was a dark liquid trail leading to a slick stain left behind by a to-go mug. My stomach rumbled as I breathed in the charred smell of spent coffee beans. Coffee was alien to me then, not yet a faithful and nervous companion. I settled for orange juice in a clear plastic cup that had been likely been given out as part of a giveaway at a fast-food restaurant or gas station.
One could argue I knew this house better than my own. My cousin was our one and only babysitter every weeknight and during the summer (up to the point where I could take care of myself and my younger brother…surprising as that may be to some). This one-story ranch house just ten minutes away from my parents’ split-level had seen more than its fair share of memorable moments. I wrote my first letter on a typewriter set up on the kitchen table I was currently parked at (and had that letter rudely shared across the neighborhood thanks to my cousin); I cried in nearly every forgotten corner of the backyard; I narrowly escaped all of the monsters, murderers, and Darth Vaders hiding in the basement whenever my aunt asked me to get her a bottle of soda from the extra refrigerator.
I pawed through the open puzzle box to see if I could flush out any of the remaining edge pieces my aunt was hunting for. She always picked the most insanely difficult puzzles—ones that featured similar pastel skies or black-green seascapes and not much else. I sifted through a few hundred pieces as I finished my juice, but came up empty. I knew she’d have the whole thing done by the next sleepover. She’d show it off to us, let us break it apart, dump it into the box, and store it in the basement with all the other covered bridges, cow pastures, and descending aircraft. We would help her open the new one, but didn’t have the attention span to stick around much longer than that. Let’s be serious; there were Commodore 64 video games to be played.
I found myself hovering near my grandmother’s chair. I should mention here that she wasn’t really my grandmother. I also wasn’t technically related to anyone in this house by blood (except for my comatose younger brother). Let’s just say a lot of death, sadness, forgiveness, and love and other drugs had to break right to congeal our familial bonds. My older brother (whose late mother was my aunt’s sister) did all the heavy lifting, briefly shunning one of his elders when they questioned my brotherly legitimacy. A scowling boy standing in the rain just outside my aunt and uncle’s property line was all it took for them to say, “Fine, I guess we’ll love him too.” My aunt gives me the credit for bringing the families together, which, I admit, tickles me because it drives my typically stoic older brother crazy. But he’s the glue, now and forever and ever.
The folding tray table next to the chair still houses the candy dish my grandmother used to fill up with M&Ms every morning. I grew up in an era that didn’t feature all the cool colors you can find now. (Blue? I mean, what is it with this nonsense?) We had colors, sure, but they were severely outnumbered by the dark brown and tan varieties. Those would always get eaten last, so the dish ended up looking like an unappetizing mass of beige chocolate discs. We’d get desperate though, breaking our “only eat the fun colors” rule. Anyway, the dish was as empty now as the chair. My grandmother’s death was the first I truly remembered and understood. I had been too scared to say goodbye to her body. I was scared of everything then. I hope she didn’t take offense.
A deep cough and a screen door latch being pulled led me back into the kitchen. I smiled as my aunt walked in carrying a large white box tied up with thin white string.
“Glazed and crullers,” she said, dropping the box on her puzzle. “You the only one up?”
I nodded. I was debating between the two sugary options too hard to respond with words.
“Gonna make more coffee and have a…break on the porch,” she said. “Want to wait for me?”
She could have said cigarette break. It’s not like I wasn’t going to watch her smoke half a pack while I injested a week’s worth of sugar next to her.
“Sure,” I said.
I watched as she set her glasses back down on her thick hardcover (likely a Tom Clancy yarn, but it could have easily been John Jakes or any number of longwinded fiction writers). The fact she dressed more casually on the weekends always threw me off. She was a manager at the phone company and came home most nights in shoulder-padded blazers and razor-creased slacks. She was still smartly dressed, mind you, couldn’t have the Lord thinking she was a scrub, but she wore her weekend outfits with less misogyny and corporate responsibility bearing down on her.
The coffee maker did its job, spitting out another four cups. My aunt refilled her mug and motioned toward the front porch.
“Fred!” She yelled.
The female mutt poked her head above the arm of the couch she was tucked underneath. (I hadn’t realized I had company earlier, probably because I didn’t have food to share.) Fred unraveled herself from the tight ball she had worked herself into and stretched. Her tail wagged as my aunt put on the leash she’d wear briefly before being chained to the porch railing. The three of us headed outside with nicotine, caffeine, dog treats, and donuts.
It wasn’t a big porch. Just a pile of poured concrete attached to the house that was large enough to have a short wooden bench bolted into it. It served as the perfect perch to watch thunderstorms, shout to the across-the-street neighbors, or argue about whether “Family Matters” or “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was the better show. I plopped down on the front step, my back against the house. My aunt settled in close to the standing ashtray next to the far right side of the bench.
“How’s school?” My aunt asked, carefully slurping the hot black coffee while ashing her first cigarette at the same time.
I shrugged. (What a little dick. I loved school. I could have said anything.)
“Just like your brothers,” she sighed.
That much was true.
“Still want to live in New York City when you grow up?” She asked.
“I don’t see why. So busy, so dirty. It smells there, you know. And your uncle’s brother was propositioned by a hooker. In the Bronx. With his wife right next to him! That was enough for me.”
I didn’t know what hookers were. Although, maybe I did. Could have been one or two in a V.C. Andrews novel.
“Writers live in New York,” I said, a half-eaten glazed donut hanging out of my mouth.
“Oh boy,” she said. “You don’t want to make money.”
I didn’t know anything about rent or bills. Or groceries. I wouldn’t for a long time.
“What are the odds your younger brother becomes a priest?” She asked. “Be nice to have a priest in the family.”
Surely, that was the nicotine talking.
“Don’t bet on it,” I said, repeating something I heard on television once.
I’m sure I was inhaling a year’s worth of secondhand smoke every hour I spent out there, just sitting in silence and watching the neighborhood shake off any Sunday doldrums. Every time she nodded her head toward that side door, I’d follow, Surgeon General’s warning be damned. I spent a lot of years and traveled a lot of miles getting back to that front porch.
Which brings us to a U-Haul truck on I-95 North.
“Did you ever think you’d be driving out of New York City with all your crap in a truck and me in the front seat?” My girlfriend asked.
I set my coffee back into the cup holder, watching it slosh over the sides and further staining the cracked plastic dashboard.
“Not the way I wrote it up in my head,” I said. “But certainly not the worst scenario in the world.”
When you spend enough time trying to convince yourself that the wrong people are the right lovers, you grab onto the one you know in your bones you want to make obscenely happy for the rest of your life. Even if they ask you to pack up your life and move to the city where the Red Sox play.
I was done with New York anyway. Or, more accurately, the city was done with me. I had been laid off from the only job I’d ever known and could no longer afford the cramped room in a rats-nest apartment in the bowels of Astoria. Hitting the reset button, even if it meant relocating to northern environs, with the smartest, most beautiful woman I know wasn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had.
“What’s up on Twitter?” I asked.
“No news? At all? Anywhere?”
“Sorry, I’m sleepy.”
“Want to drive?”
“You really want me driving this big truck?”
“Sure, why not.”
“I haven’t driven in, I don’t know how long. But it’s been awhile.”
“Probably been just as long for me. And I’m under-caffeinated. Speaking of…”
I brought the blue, Greek coffee cup to my lips just as we ran over a pothole. Hot brown liquid soaked through my clothes, causing me to utter every curse word public education taught me.
“How’d that feel?” She asked as I struggled to signal and merge toward the upcoming exit.
I chose to ignore that. More traffic was ahead and I needed a navigator who was actually speaking to me.
The rest of the ride was uneventful, if a bit…damp. I unloaded everything I owned in the world (which took up less than half the truck), watched my girlfriend drive off an hour later with her mother headed to my future adopted home, had an ugly cry in the backyard swinging a baseball bat, and fell asleep with three fans putted at me trying to keep the midsummer heat outside where it belonged.
I woke early. Stupid early. “You’re up so early on a Sunday morning at your aunt’s house that you’re guaranteed a trip to church” early. Of course, thinking about her sparked an idea. I knew she’d be sitting in front of a coffee and paperback right now, same as always.
You want to grab breakfast? I texted.
Three bubbles popped up before I was even done typing.
You pick the place, she replied. I’m buying. Don’t argue.
I texted her a local favorite that I hoped still existed. I pulled a random assortment of clothes out of my duffel bag, not yet unpacked from yesterday’s move. The Neil Young concert t-shirt (ratty as it was) and the pair of cargo shorts I found weren’t the same color, which is all I could really ask for.
Hey, you need a ride? My aunt texted me as I headed into the shower.
Ah yes, I hadn’t thought about no longer living in a pedestrian nirvana. I couldn’t hop on the 6, N, or F trains anymore. Considering both of my parents were at work, I was stranded in the ‘burbs.
Breakfast and transportation. You’re spoiled here already! See you in ten.
She had thinned out, all of the surgeries and other medical shenanigans taking their toll, and her face had a few more creases than the last time I saw her. But she still had that Irish-Catholic fire behind her eyes, that impish laugh employed expertly to make sure you knew there were no hard feelings that she was right and you weren’t.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said.
“Fine, fine or ‘I’m full of it,’ fine?”
“Don’t be like my kids,” she said, pointing at finger at me. “I’m alive, right?”
“Seems that way.”
“I can’t eat like I used to, but no one my age does,” she said. “Nothing wrong with my ability to drink coffee, so that’s good enough. That work for you?”
“You’re paying this round, so I surrender.”
“This round, huh?”
“Thinking we could make this a regular thing.”
“Well, we could be nice every now and again and invite my father. He looked a little bummed when I told him where I was going. He has Wednesdays off, so maybe we switch up the schedule.”
“Can you believe how much I love that guy after he used to call me a jerk-off in high school?”
“Yeah, your father, the saint,” she said. “Then he marries my sister. The nerve. Best thing he’s ever done is have you boys.”
She laughed as she said this. Her love for my father was indestructible. She’s right though; having us probably helped.
The salt-and-pepper-haired waitress, who would become an essential part of our breakfast troupe, walked over in military precision, poured out coffees, and started marching back to behind the counter.
“Oh!” She said, turning around. “You two need cream or sugar?”
“Nope, just black. Him too,” my aunt said.
“Great, you two holler whenever you’re ready,” the waitress said.
She had a heavy French accent. We were going to get along just fine.
“Holler!” My aunt yelled, laughing.
“I should have figured! Be back in a jiff. Don’t starve in the meantime,” the waitress yelled back.
“I like her already,” I said.
“She’s bringing you coffee and food, of course you do.”
“So. Your friend in the White House ain’t gonna win it for your girl,” she said far sooner than I anticipated.
I wasn’t going to be sucked into this.
“Well, your orange pal is going to be too busy harassing women, shredding civil liberties, and tweeting profanities to get around to all the evil things he’s promising if we’re dumb enough to elect him,” I said.
(Fine, I’m weak. But she started it!)
The political banter didn’t last long. We both chuckled at one point, and she lovingly slapped my cheek. That’s how we do it (except at Thanksgiving when she’s outnumbered…it’s not pretty).
“What can I get you two?” The waitress asked.
I’m going to just call her Eva since my memory is too faulty to remember what it actually is/was. That’ll make things easier.
“This is my nephew,” my aunt said. “He’s home from school. New Yorker. He’s French too, you know.”
"Ah, un autre Français, comment apprécie-tu d'être rentré de l'école?"
Couple of things. I graduated seven years before this conversation. Also, I don’t remember even un peu from four years of high school French.
“Are you hiring?” I asked.
“He’s funny this one,” Eva said. “And no.”
“In that case, I’ll take a ham and cheese omelet and wheat toast.”
“Would I be a Frenchman without them?”
“Oui, but not much of one.”
“No peppers and onions though. I’ll be pushing it enough already after another cup of coffee.”
“What can I get for you, darling?”
“Breakfast wrap. I know I won’t eat it all, but it’s damn good.”
“Coming right up. Enjoy that coffee.”
I gave her a thumbs up while taking a healthy swig of it. She walked away laughing after slapping me on the shoulder.
“Reading anything good?” My aunt asked.
She skeptically endured all of the nonfiction titles I threw her way, and then she recommended all manner of mysteries and thrillers. She humored me by buying a Richard Russo novel on her Kindle. (She said later that she’d never read anything like that ever again. “It’s well written, but I’ve got my own problems to suffer through, you know? I don’t need to read about somebody else’s.” Well.)
Our food arrived just as I started shaking from the caffeine. We fell silent for a bit, in large part because I was shoveling food in an attempt to prevent the coffee from shredding my system.
“Got a plan?” She asked, picking at her meal.
“The beginnings of one. Applied to a few jobs here and in Boston. No replies so far. You hiring?”
“You going to read fiction out loud to me during chemo?” She asked.
“Depends on the pay.”
“I have to pay you? I helped raise you. You owe me, buddy.”
“This job interview is not going well. I’ll take myself out of the running.”
“When you getting married?”
“We’ve reached the lightning round.”
“I’m a sick woman, can you do it soon, please?”
“First of all, that’s an admission of how you’re feeling, and, second, that’s definitely part of the plan.”
“She’s going to make a beautiful bride. Her family like you?”
“If not, they do an excellent job pretending. Especially considering she’s bringing me to their doorstep like a cat with a dead mouse.”
“I’m going to wrap this up and have the rest for lunch…and probably dinner,” she said, finally putting her fork down. She hadn’t eaten much. “That’s what happens when you get old. Don’t get old.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“It’s so great that you’re home. We all missed you,” she said. “Shame none of you turned out to be priests though.”
“Got one principal out of the deal. That’s close, right.”
“He ain’t giving us absolution! Detention maybe.”
Who can argue with that?
This ended up being our routine every Wednesday for the four months I lived at home. We never talked about the things that were truly hurting us (chemo and doctors for her, unemployment and long-distance love for me). For an hour or so every week, coffee and conversation provided the tonic we needed to survive. We’d change restaurants occasionally, and ended up inviting my father and uncle more times than we anticipated. At the tail end of summer, I finally landed a permanent position in Boston. We sat in our booth (creatures of habit, my family), and avoided the fact that this was our final breakfast together for a while.
“Let me ask you something,” she said.
“Tom Clancy is dead, right?”
“Yes. Ludlum too. James Patterson might as well be.”
“But they still publish books with their names on it.”
“And someone else writes them.”
“Well, the authors that do, they gotta be pissed, right? They don’t get their own recognition. They’re doing all the work! I’d be so mad. They deserve better!”
I laughed, nearly spilling my coffee all over myself (constant theme in my life if you hadn’t noticed).
“Those authors are doing just fine,” I said. “They get paid very well to write those. A lot of them grew up reading those guys. They’d probably do it for free. Actually, that’s probably not true, but it’s still an honor to have your name alongside someone like Clancy. Trust me, they aren’t bummed about the paycheck.”
“Still,” my aunt said. “It’s BS. All that hard work. You’d never sign up for something like that.”
“I could not say yes fast enough. I’d dedicate the first book to you, just to make you upset.”
“Well, if you’re going to do that, I want it for a book you write, not some zombie Clive Cussler piece of you know what.”
“Hey, I know you’ve got packing to do, since you’re abandoning us again, but you want to swing by the house? We can have another pot of coffee and I have a stack of old books to give you.”
“Considering you’re my ride, I couldn’t refuse even if I wanted to.”
“Good. Think your older brother is visiting today too. Be good to have reinforcements for that crew. We’ll wait for them on the front porch.”
“You don’t still smoke do you?”
She pointed a finger.
“Right, don’t be like my cousins, I got it,” I said. “But…”
“Quit a long time ago and look what happened,” she said laughing. “I’m the poster child for healthy living. Let’s roll.”
I ended up in my usual spot—ass on the top step, head up against the house’s white siding—with a pile of beat-up paperbacks that I’m sure included siblings humping.
A few heavy sighs replaced her drags off a cigarette.
“What can you do,” she muttered, clearing her throat completely. Louder, she asked, “So am I in your novel?”
“Well, no,” I said.
“Pft,” she said. “I’ve been insulted by better people.”
As if knowing I needed rescuing, a four-year-old with a blond ponytail and the grace of a bowling bowl barreled into me.
“Uncle, uncle,” she said, her breath coming out in excited gasps. “Boy, do I need to tell you this story.”
Her eyes and hands did most of the talking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my older brother coming up the front walk with the rest of his brood.
“It’s his story to tell,” I whispered to my aunt. “Although, keep your eyes on this one.”
My niece sensed I wasn’t paying attention and put her hands on her hips. She slapped her hands on my cheeks and forced my face to make sure my eyes were looking at her and only her. She then began the story all over again.
My aunt was leaning up against the porch’s black metal railing at this point. Her smile was wider than I had seen it in quite some time. My older brother was the real star of this family, even more so with his trio of “I’m smarter than you are and I know it” kids.
Her stance brought back a memory I had forgotten.
My brothers and I all got the chicken pox at the same time. For whatever reason, my aunt had taken us all in and quarantined us in my cousin’s room. I remember watching “The Karate Kid” trilogy while trying not to think about the violent itch lurking underneath my Superman pajamas.
My aunt came to check on us frequently since the room was conveniently located next to the front door and her next cigarette break. She’d lean on the doorframe, smacking a pack of Merits against her wrist. She’d pretend to watch Daniel-san crane-kick is way to victory, but I knew her eyes were worrying over the three pockmarked lumps shivering under a motley assortment of blankets. She’d close the door after a while, her fix momentarily winning out over her concern.
I remember darkness.
And pushing against the vinyl roll-up blinds, an orange reminder of what we were missing, the light.
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